Anti-commodity and free distribution in film and video work

In a 2002 article reflecting on the first decade of the London Filmmakers Co-operative (1966-76), one of its founding members Malcolm LeGrice observed:
“Where the film-makers established some semblance of functioning economy through Co-op distribution and exhibition rentals (financial exchange for the experience not ownership of the object), the non-filmmaker artists had little option than the sale of works or documentation. I believe this anti-commodity characteristic, together with the more collective attitude of the Co-op film-makers, challenged the ideology of artistic individualism and the demand for a marketable individual identity, and I think this carries over into an ethical/aesthetic form in the work itself.”
(Malcolm Le Grice – Filmwaves / art in-sight, 2002)

Contrast this with a video that popped up on my YouTube subscriber feed yesterday titled ‘The Top 10 Skills You Need To Dominate YouTube’, which included advice on ‘Branding’, ‘Business Strategy’, ‘Data Analytics’, and ‘YouTube Strategy’. Whereas it’s been noted here before, the parallels between the founding aspiration of the New York Filmmakers Co-operative for filmmakers to be able to freely self-distribute their work, and the ethos of online film-makers to do the same – videos such as this from YouTube approved consultants, reduce online film-making to a branch of digital marketing. The freedom to produce and distribute your own work is traded off against the financial possibilities offered through advertising revenue. It’s not producers and distributors influencing the nature and content of the work, but the insights from YouTube analytics and the need to develop a clearly defined, individual brand.

This is perhaps why artist film-makers seem to have a preference for Vimeo as an online platform for sharing their work, often paying a fee for greater flexibility and more features. ‘A marketable individual identity’ doesn’t hold much sway on Vimeo, where the algorithm is a less dominant force, and experimentation seems to be rewarded.

However, LeGrice notes the way that artist filmmakers were rejecting the model defined by the commercial art market in de-commodifying their work. And you can see that this also applies even to the ad-rev pursuing video producers and marketeers on YouTube who have established an alternative model of commercial video production where the producer is also the client, and the real commodity is not the video work but the attention of the audience, established through models such as that described in the Video Creators video. In this scenario, the videos themselves almost become disposable, a means to an end in a constant stream of content produced to appease the algorithm. Creators can adapt their work to fit the needs of sponsors, videos talking about mental health sponsored by therapy apps, vlogs about books and reading sponsored by Audible etc. The financial exchange is for a period of time in the attention span of the audience, not for the video work itself, which continues to belong to the creator.

However it’s achieved, through sponsorship, ad-share, or paid downloads and streams, online digital film-makers have achieved one of the principle aims of the sixties filmmakers co-operatives – to establish a ‘functioning economy’, find alternative sources of funding, and destroying the ‘budget myth’.

Point and Shoot


“We will also film the walk on digital super 8”

Andrew Kötting from the proposal for Edith Walks

Andrew Kötting’s film Edith Walks lit up the summer film season of 2017. The Guardian declared it “One of Summer 2017’s best movies.” It was Sight and Sound’s Film of the Week. It drew praise from the Financial Times and The Observer and toured cinemas across Britain and Europe. Nearly every précis and blurb for the film mentioned the fact it had been shot using digital super 8 – some mentioned digital super 8 iPhone cameras.

Edith Walks - directed by Andrew Kötting

Kötting rose to prominence 20 years previously with his beautiful visionary travelogue Gallivant – a journey around the coast of Britain by road. One of the most striking scenes for me, was the shot of Kötting posting yellow envelopes of Super 8 film to the Kodak lab from a remote post-box in the Scottish Highlands, explaining to his daughter Eden and his grandmother Gladys that if the envelopes got lost in the post he might not have a film. There was also a scene where Kötting hung out of the camper van shooting on his Super 8 camera, he then fell and broke his ankle. This was film-making with jeopardy – shooting from the hip on Super 8. After seeing the film at the Sydney Film Festival I went straight out and bought a Canon Super 8 camera and shot my first film on a 6-week trip to India.

“That’s what informs my work. It has to be difficult. I’ve never been comfortable with the comfortable. If it’s comfortable, it’s not worth doing.”

Andrew Kötting from an interview in The Guardian

While looking for a camera to film the walks for a book I was writing, my sister told me that Andrew Kötting was using a point-and-shoot stills camera that shot good video (she became a student of Kötting’s after I gave her the Super 8 camera that came with a projector I bought to watch my India footage. I also included a copy of Gallivant on VHS for context). She said he’d even used it to shoot some of the footage for his feature film, Swandown (another brilliant visionary travelogue), that had sat alongside the principle cinematography shot on a cinema camera. I’d been stood in the camera shop looking at the camcorders and following her phone call walked out with a Canon Powershot compact digital camera. I was surprised by the quality of the footage that came out of this little pocket camera. It was perfect for making a record of my walks.

Swandown Andrew Kötting
Swandown Andrew Kötting/BFI
Swandown Andrew Kötting/BFI
Swandown Andrew Kötting/BFI

Researching an upgrade a few years later I came across a YouTube video in which Casey Neistat talked about the cameras he used. I liked the DIY aesthetic Neistat applied to his craft and how he embraced the limitations of using compact point-and-shoot cameras because of the liberating benefits of having a go-anywhere camera – the camera without a crew. He shot a number of viral hits (some funded by huge brands that would have budgeted for a crew) on the tiny Canon S120. I bought one straightaway and used it to start a new series of walking videos (since replaced in two upgrades but still at the bottom of my bag everywhere I go).

“I remember presenting a black and white super-8 film at the London Film-maker’s Co-op as part of a Sin Now-Pray Later programme that was called Anvil-Head-The-Hun and inspired by the Jesus Christ myth. It ran for 80 minutes and came on four 20 minute spools, it really tried people’s patience but prepared me for the longer format of moving image.”

Andrew Kötting from an interview in The Quietus

When I joined Andrew Kötting for a section of the yomp captured in Edith Walks, he instructed me to shoot on my Panasonic GH3 mirrorless camera as if it were a Super 8, shooting in short bursts. His iPhone also became a Super 8 camera. There was evidently a Super 8 state of mind that could cross over to digital film-making. To ignore the possibilities of shooting endless hours of footage in favour grasping the potential of small cameras that could fit in the palm of your hand to capture the essence of the moment. The poor battery life, limited clip lengths, and lack of manual control became virtues rather than hindrances. A technology intended for documenting and sharing family occasions, holidays, and vloggers going for morning coffee was being utilized to create cinema. The point-and-shoot camera was a tool for making art.

by Andrew Kötting, 2017

“Who you walk with alters what you see….

A film shot on an iPhone with a super 8 app documenting a walk made with Iain Sinclair from Dover to London along Watling Street, sometimes in the company of John Rogers and sometimes in the company of Anne Caron-Delion. The film was never intended, I had planned to make the walk and take a few photographs as proof BUT as is so often the case when walking with Iain one thing leads to another and in the next instance another journeywork pops out.” – Andrew Kötting

Jonas Mekas – the original vlogger

jonas mekas quote

I’m not so much in the future as always in the present. The future always takes care of itself. What I do now with my video camera, it can only record what is happening now. I am celebrating reality and the essence of the moment. And that’s the greatest challenge that I have.

Jonas Mekas

Jonas Mekas is considered the godfather of avant-garde film. Throughout the 1950’s his writing in Film Culture magazine and The Village Voice helped foster an emerging experimental film movement that was given a home when he formed the Film-Maker’s Co-operative and Cinematheque in New York in 1962. One of his great stylistic achievements was to develop the diary film as an art form, carrying his Bolex camera everywhere he went capturing the world around him. Without Mekas and films such as Walden we wouldn’t have vloggers such as Casey Neistat and Charles Trippy.

Camera: Pierce Jackson, Kasper Bech Dyg and Jonas Mekas
Produced and edited by: Kasper Bech Dyg
Copyright: Louisiana Channel, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2015

Me, I just film my life

Mekas naturally transitioned from film to video sometime in the 1980’s. Even now, well into his 90’s, his camera goes everywhere with him ready to celebrate “reality and the essence of the moment.” In his 365-Day Project from 2007, Mekas made a video record of every day of the year on a Sony camcorder. A project that presages the daily vloggers who now dominate YouTube, most of whom probably unaware of the debt they owe to a 90-something Lithuanian refugee who survived the Nazi labour camps.

Jonas Mekas camera
from Jonas Mekas – In Focus – The Artist’s Studio by MOCA

I make films, therefore I live

He appears to carry over the discipline of low-budget film-making, editing ‘in camera’, telling one interviewer that, “I do almost all of my editing during the filming”. Among the scenes he captured on his ever-present camera were candid moments of Andy Warhol, not the artist as he presented himself curated to the world, but everyday episodes that eventually became the film, Scenes from the life of Andy Warhol.

nothing is happening, it is real world

from Jonas Mekas – In Focus – The Artist’s Studio by MOCA

Diaries, notes, sketches – I have to film

As subjects for his camera, Mekas doesn’t discriminate between the famous, such as Jackie Kennedy and Yoko Ono, and a flock of pigeons dancing in the Brooklyn sky – they are merely things to be filmed. A birthday party, people leaving the cinema, a walk in New York.

It’s almost as if he formed the underground cinema movement so he could become part of it. The community aspect of his film-making project, the desire to share films and ideas, is another huge influence on the world of online video makers and film-makers of today.

Just get a camera and do it

The Film-makers Co-operative was born of a desire to self-distribute films that would otherwise not be seen by an audience. Informal screenings and discussions took place in what became Mekas’ New York loft apartment. That urge to freely distribute film and video without the control of gatekeepers is what led video sharing platforms such as Vimeo and YouTube to explode. The DIY ethos that Mekas developed and promoted, an almost punk attitude to film-making long before Johnny Rotten and Joe Strummer applied it to rock and roll, grab a camera and – ‘shoot, shoot, shoot’ (as the Tate restrospective of the London Film-makers’ Co-op was titled) – has had a profound influence on contemporary video culture. Among his many, richly deserved accolades and epithets, Jonas Mekas deserves to be recognised as the original vlogger.

Some further sources used for this post:

Jonas Mekas

Jonas Mekas – In Focus – The Artist’s Studio

“Me, I Just Film My Life”: An Interview with Jonas Mekas